With the unanimous passage by the Security Council of a tough and intrusive mechanism of inspections and failure-to-comply consequences on Baghdad, the world is poised to disarm Iraq. After weeks of speculation, Russia chose to side with America against Iraq. Yet all was in doubt until the final minutes. In the end, President Putin held onto the policy clearly established by his foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, in these pages, namely, that "Russia would not allow any potential disagreements over Iraq to interfere with the progress of the Russian-American relationship", adding that both regimes shared the view that "an Iraq possessing WMD would pose a threat to global security, especially if such weapons found their way into the hands of terrorists or extremists." (Cf. http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/vol1issue3Ivanov.html)
As such, Putin's choice was rooted in a realization that siding with America against Iraq (despite strong pressure from narrow-minded domestic commercial interests and Cold War nostalgics) amounted to a defense of Russia's national interests. This choice is perfectly in line with the fundamental strategic choice of his presidency to abandon Russian delusions of geopolitical grandeur and plunge Russia headfirst into cooperation and integration with the West.
Putin saw months ago that America probably would have attacked Iraq with or without his country's support (as well as that of France and other members of the UN Security Council). He also saw that the United States would choose to go it alone only after a Security Council veto. This means that, at least for now, Colin Powell and his brand of realpolitik has won the day over the Administration's neo-conservative hawkish unilateralism. Putin's strategy was to make sure Powell would prevail, so as best to take careful advantage of the healthy conservatism that was at play in Bush's strategic thinking-for maximum benefit to Russia's national interests.
Putin's diplomatic brinkmanship constituted the Kremlin's strongest signal yet to the Bush Administration that, in its view, Washington had gone too far in its flirtation with a general doctrine of pre-emption. In Putin's and Igor Ivanov's assessment, the September 2002 National Security Strategy was in truth an argument for the broad power of waging preventive war against any perceived enemy, no matter how distant the actual threat may be. Foremost, Putin was making it clear to the White House that Russia did not accept such an international security doctrine.
At the same time, Putin signaled with his country's vote that in the specific case of Iraq, the insistence upon an unprecedently intrusive inspections regime is acceptable. Disarming Iraq, by force if necessary, before the appearance of more weapons of mass destruction, is a strategic imperative for both countries and the rest of the civilized world.
Resolution 1441 declares that Iraq is in "material breach of its obligations" to the 1991 Gulf War cease-fire agreement with the United Nations. This means that the cease-fire is no longer valid as a matter of international law. That being said, 1441 "afford[s] Iraq […] a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations" by setting up an "enhanced inspections regime" that is designed implicitly to fail-if we assume that Saddam Hussein has not taken a figurative walk on the road to Damascus.
Resolution 1441 effectively ends with a "warn[ing]" that "serious consequences" (i.e. the use of force) can result without the necessity of a further resolution authorizing its use. This means that as early as the waning days of December (23 December is the date by which the inspectors must begin their work and can begin to verify the accuracy and completeness of Iraq's list of programs to develop and deliver WMD and such, itself due 8 December), Iraq could find itself facing the imminent use of American and allied force. The cease-fire will have been understood as being definitively broken and hostilities could resume without legal impediment.
War is still avoidable and I pray it can be avoided; but if it comes, and come I fear it will, it will not have arisen in the name of America's previously stated objective to change the Iraqi regime into a successful desert democracy (something without historical precedent), but rather because of the international community's commitment to destroy the multiplying tools of tyranny, instability and insecurity. This would be in line with what men like General Charles Boyd have been saying for a while: "what is worrisome about Saddam Hussein, however, is not Saddam Hussein himself. It is Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction." (See his remarks in In the National Interest at http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol1Issue1/Vol1Issue1Boyd.html)
By not vetoing the resolution, Russia has granted to the United States and Great Britain the right to organize a coalition of the willing the moment Iraq obfuscates or equivocates. The resolution therefore fully supports Washington's claim that Iraq has brought this conflict onto itself. Russian support acknowledges that this time, the political will in the White House to see the thing through to the end is present.
The vote signals that Putin understands that had Russia not joined America at this critical juncture, the Security Council would have become irrelevant, making it easier for the United States to initiate actions Russia and other powers might have considered unilateralist adventurous expeditions. Exercising the Russian veto, in other words, was neither in Russia's national interest nor in America's. An America moderated by allies and partners, and thus more inclined to take seriously Westphalian principles, is to be welcomed by Russia and Americans concerned with their country's possible slip toward an "empire of democracy."
In short, Russia's acquiescence and even support for this war will renew an international security climate built on the rational principle of realpolitik, with stability, the balance of power and the war on terror as its centerpieces.
Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic is a Washington-based columnist for the Russian daily Izvestia and a fellow at the Karic Institute for Strategic Studies and Development in Belgrade, Serbia. He is also the Assistant Managing Editor of The National Interest.